Archive | January 2013

‘Love English, Hate Maths?’


I love a leading and provocative title, but I have you reading so I will assuage all those Maths teachers nice and early that this is not an attack at all – indeed, it is quite the opposite – it is a robust defence of Maths and the teaching and learning of mathematics. You heard it right: ‘English teacher writes in defence of Maths‘. Now, as a Subject Leader of English, I am acutely conscious of the pressures faced by core subject teachers, in both English and Maths, and particularly those of the Subject Leaders of Maths. In many ways I recognise that it is not really a fair playing field. One key critical factor, which as a teacher of children (and not just English) irks me greatly, is that society most often supports and celebrates the majesty of reading and writing, but it openly scorns mathematical study – the weight of culture actually militates against the learning of mathematics.

The impact of cultural conditioning cannot be underestimated and the stigmatising power of language cuts deep and endures. I was brought up in a literate working class background, rich in reading and good humoured talk. Education was seen as a privilege and I was warmly supported in a loving climate. I am whole-heartedly thankful for brilliant and loving parents. One small failure on their part is that they “couldn’t do Maths”. This familiar refrain passed readily onto me and around about thirteen years of age (after I had been temporarily sparked by a brilliant Maths teacher, Mr Laing, who openly debated his early struggles with Maths, and his Damoclean conversion to becoming passionate about Maths). I pretty much stopped trying hard at Maths. I couldn’t see the benefits, I was happy to take the easy route, perpetuate the stereotypes passed onto me. Does this sound familiar?

The stigma of illiteracy is anathema for our society so we do something about it – we need to tackle innumeracy with the same sense of importance.There is a widespread societal acceptance that mathematics cannot be learnt easily, in fact, from many the notion that it cannot be learnt at all; not like those supposedly ‘natural‘ subjects like English, or Art, or PE. Of course, all of this is nonsense! As is the stereotype that those ‘blessed’ with mathematical skill are particular geniuses! From birth, children are indoctrinated with this closed system of thought, which of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Children become unwilling to put in the time and effort to develop the mastery, so the mastery, and the pleasure therein never comes. Anyone who has read Carole Dweck’s ‘Mindset‘ will be fully versed in the destructive power of such culturally vindicated language. Day after day, these negative representations wear away at the will of students like water hollowing out a stone.

As humans we are naturally averse to thinking, we seek this state so we can focus upon the important stuff, like danger and our primal needs for survival. This neatly explains why I prefer to snack on sweets and not tackle complex mathematical problems of an evening! So children, intelligent and wily creatures that they are, will do their damnedest to avoid the difficult thinking and challenges that attend learning in Maths lessons. I wrote recently about reading great, and challenging, literature, like Shakespeare, to enjoy what W B Yeats termed “the fascination of what’s difficult”. The same principals apply to Maths, only children are vindicated in their avoidance of tackling the subject by negative cultural language and stereotypes. See this great collection of clips from films for irrefutable evidence of a deep rooted cultural bias against mathematical study:

A great video via Dan Meyer showing you how ‘Hollywood Hates Maths!’

Now, this video is comic in its collective negativity, but how many students are turned against mathematics because of these less than subtle social messages? In ancient times, Plato and the Greeks viewed the study of mathematics as purifying the soul – nowadays it is depicted as a pursuit for unpopular geeks alone! Let’s remember that children suffer from tremendous social forces in their daily lives that impacts upon their behaviour and their habits; no more so then teens, who walk through a status and identity minefield everyday, acutely sensitive of their appearance to their peers. The ‘Maths geek‘ stereotype is more seriously damaging than it may first appear. How many countless children have been turned off from committing the hours and hours of deliberate practice needed to help our working memory fit to deal with challenging mathematical problems? It is ironically this crucial deliberate practice which eventually can render Maths ‘easy’, or even, dare I use the term ‘natural’!

Compare this with the cultural capital firing the English canon. Shakespeare has been rendered cool by DiCaprio; television shows of great novels are abound; tablet devices and eReaders are cool accessories to boost reading; poetry is aligned with music and more. We can draw upon politics, comedy, the media – the list goes on. Even as an English teacher I can draw inspiration from ‘The Dead Poets Society‘ (and I shamelessly do!) or ‘Dangerous Minds‘ (well, I plainly don’t!). Our study in English is reliant upon vocabulary recognition (see this excellent essay by E.D. Hirsch on the topic), which of course is bolstered by our wider culture; by talk with the family and by the myriad of texts that surround students in their daily lives. Much learning is tacit and implicit – we can simply draw upon that learning in English. Don’t get me wrong, reading is beset by challenges – again, these are outlined by Hirsch in the essay linked above – but many cultural benefits are in our favour too. We are the popular big brother to the ten stone Maths weakling!

What needs to happen is that the pervasive cultural narrative attached to mathematics needs to fundamentally shift. You may well quibble that that is a rather tall order for individuals without Rupert Murdoch-like media power…and you would be right. We can and should; however, do our best to change our local culture, the culture of our school, or family of schools, including feeder Primaries and more(this language sets the rot in early, like gender ‘appropriate’ toys the dye is cast quick). We must work from Primary level and even before to celebrate the rich pleasures to be found in number. We need to work with parents in highlighting to them the power of their language – a crash course in ‘growth mindset’ thinking – as well as actually dealing with the language we use (many a staff room would be littered with similar attitudes to mathematics based in my experience).

We can also illuminate how mathematics it is rooted in everything we do (perhaps school staff should read some books on the topic, like ‘The Undercover Economist‘ or ‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland‘ to name just a couple). We need to articulate how it can make you eminently employable – wealth, status and power are for some reason very appealing to teenagers! We could even promote careers in ethical banking for example, god knows we need more of those! Effectively, we need many more mathematical role models who can articulate its value in a whole host of ways. Ultimately, we need to make mathematics real – we must draw away the veil of mystery from mathematical concepts and make mathematics relevant to everyday life. We must make it feel relevant beyond the four walls of the classroom and the exam hall. Hollywood, nor anybody else, is likely to do it for us.

George Sampson famously quoted, in 1921, “Every teacher in English is a teacher of English“. Perhaps we need to shift our school cultures to ensure that people think and talk with the notion that ‘every teacher in English is a teacher of Maths‘.

Useful Resources/Ideas:

I’m no Maths expert; however, I have found these really interesting ideas that certainly got me thinking about inspiring the teaching and learning of mathematics: A great talk from DD Meyer, an American Maths teacher who provides a lively vision for mathematics in the classroom. The great blog of the aforementioned Meyer. A great teaching master class on using mathematics to engage and inspire in a real way. Another intriguing TED talk to spark thinking about re shaping the teaching and learning of mathematics. This programme looks to tackle many of the issues outlined in my post.

Universal Panacea: Revaluing Education


Firstly, let me dismiss the notion that there is any one universal panacea which will have a transformative impact upon education. Sadly, we cannot uproot the Finnish education system and replant it in our green and pleasant land; its roots are bound in a rich local context. That being said, I am interested in the root of the word panacea and its relevance to our current predicament. The word panacea derives from the Greek: ‘panákeia‘, equivalent to ‘panake-‘, with the stem of ‘panakḗs‘, meaning ‘all-healing‘. I am particularly interested in the healing aspect. Our education system is fractured and in need of healing; our policy is driven by polarising ideology and each tier of our system is at destructive logger-heads. As a profession we are in dire need of some restorative healing. My palliative, alas, not an ‘all-healing’ panacea, is to our Department FOR Education, and indeed the current, and subsequent, British governments, to realign what it values and to work in cooperation with the teaching profession. I see cooperation and interdependence as the core values which will help improve our education system and begin the healing.

The idea of ‘investment‘ I am interested in spans broader borders than just monetary value. As Warren Buffett said, ‘price is what you pay, value is what you get’. What would have an enduring impact upon schools in the coming years is that each Department FOR Education begins to truly value state education, school leaders and teachers; not pay mere lip service to valuing education either, but displaying this conviction through policy and investment. This policy needs to be depoliticised like never before and professionalised like never before. We can better professionalise our education system through a concerted commitment to research and development. What we need is a relentless focus upon what works in education, not a rigorous defence of ideology at all costs.

As the media and the government will tell you, we are in dire need of cuts. Cut fast, cut deep…cut pretty much anything. Of course, there is an attempt to hold onto what is valued. Much was made by our current coalition government about education budgets being retained, but the reality is one of harsh cuts, with capital expenditure particularly slashed:

“Over the period covered by the 2010 Spending Review, the state-funded school population in England is expected to grow from 6.95 million in 2010–11 to 7.14 million children by 2014–15.4 Furthermore, the education leaving age will be gradually increased from 16 to 18 starting in 2013. Once phased in, this will eventually require students to stay in some form of full-time or part-time education or training until the age of 18 (instead of 16 as currently). As a result, the declines in education spending over the next few years will be spread over an increasing population, so that resources per head will probably decline by even more than total spending.

In summary, education spending experienced relatively robust growth during the 2000s. By the end of the decade, education spending as a share of national income stood close to its highest level for at least fifty years. However, over the next four years, almost all of this growth will be reversed. Having grown historically quickly during the 2000s, it is now set to fall historically fast during the early 2010s.”

Institute for Fiscal Studies report:

Of course, in austere times we must spend near aligned with our means, but by devaluing education we will inevitably stifle the very innovation that will drive our small nation back towards success, especially when faced with the rise of vast Brick nations in our changing global economy. It may not be short term enough to fit political cycles (a key issue with the politicisation of policy), but it will be enduring and transformative. Many arguments are made to sustain spending in different government sectors, such as defence spending, but evidence leads to the fact that it is a high quality education system which generates jobs, innovation and wealth creation. This American research gives some intriguing evidence to compare state spending and job creation: US education spending creating jobs – University of Massachusetts research.

I am particularly intrigued by the global comparisons of state spending on education and defence. Perhaps it is a universal example of the endemic of governments spending on the ‘cure’ (defence spending) and not the ‘prevention’ (education spending). In Britain, we have spent an estimated £83.5 billion on an outdated Cold War Defence system in Trident, when the annual education budget is an estimated £99 billion. We must get our values right – which will take a significant realignment. One other facet of the education and defence spending comparison is that of ‘research and development‘. Defence RandD spend stands at £2 billion annually. There is no real equivalent budget for RandD for schools! Higher education funding is being slashed and no ‘Big Society’ substitute will do this significant undertaking. This is at a time when Gove and Clegg seek such a valuable evidence base from the likes of the Education Endowment Foundation, showing they are aware of the impact of such rigorous research evidence, but they are tinkling with the issue. Not only that, there is significant current research being wholly ignored by the DfE.

What would be the scope if we invested £2 billion in evidence based research in Education? Higher Education funding stands at a fraction of current military RandD spending and currently the link between Universities and schools is being severed, due to the change in the teacher training model, so such quality research is becoming ever more difficult. What we must do is connect not fracture: universities and particularly Teaching School Alliances can work like a solar system, drawing together schools and practitioners in rich collaboration, rather than work in corrosive competition. The OECD have explored the striking disconnect that sees government ignoring research and development for education, preferring to base policy upon baseless ideology:

“It is striking that there is generally little public funding for educational research. Private businesses do not seem to invest heavily in knowledge that can be applied to the formal education sector, and policy makers do not seem to have a clear strategy for stimulating business investment in education R&D. On average, OECD countries allocated 15.5 times more of their public budgets to Health research than to Education research, but only 1.2 times more of their public expenditure to education than to health.”

Preparing Teachers and Developing School Leaders for the 21st Century LESSONS FROM AROUND THE WORLD, Edited by Andreas Schleicher, OECD 2012

Value Driven Solutions

– Coordinate a substantial, world-renowned R&D programme
– Establish a Royal College of Teachers
– Make teaching a Masters level study profession
– Retain national pay agreements and attract the best candidates
– Systematically link Teaching School Alliances
– Go further than ever before with planning, preparation and research time

It is about time we explored the palliative investments required to heal our fractured Education system. We need our current Coalition, and future governments, to end the cycle of botched and rehashed top-down initiatives, and instead root reform bottom up, through the profession, and focused upon evidence that always accounts for the central importance of teaching and learning. How do we source the best evidence that can create policy without a political criteria? We need to create a Royal College of Teachers that coordinates a substantial RandD budget with schools and universities (John Hattie should be employed immediately as a key leader!). With the recent merging of the Teaching Agency and the National College of School Leadership there is an overt recognition that there needs to be a powerful, respected and well resourced body that hones in on the key factor which improves any education system – the quality of teachers and teaching and learning. The core purpose of the college would be to drive the engine of evidenced based policy, independent of politicians and the short-termism of the political cycle. The real problem is that mergers come and go, new bodies and quangos fly by night, strangled by Whitehall mandarins and politicians hungry to put their name onto the latest set of changes. Any such Royal College must have a truly independent mandate, substantial funding and a strong media voice.

In tandem with that body, teaching would be raised back to the status of true professionalism, with a high bar of entry requirements and a requirement for Masters level study. In Finland, new teachers are expected to be fully versed with a knowledge base of educational development, but they also are required to write a research based thesis as a final requirement for their Masters degree. The rationale is clear: teachers should be classroom practitioners and undertake disciplined inquiry into the impact of pedagogy etc.

The research that outlines that teacher impact trumps every other factor in education is now incontrovertible, and frankly little more than common sense. With that in mind, the palliatives outlined above will help raise the status of teachers and teaching, exhibiting that the government values Education and is investing in the people that will drive its improvement. Teacher pay, particularly performance related pay (all the evidence stacks up against it!), isn’t my priority, as I happen to believe the vast majority of teachers are driven by public service and not the profit motive; however, if we are to professionalise and raise the standard of the profession to be the highest it can be, creating the rigour so celebrated by politicians, then national pay agreements will help retain those high standards. A North/South pay divide in teaching would only provide a further fracturing and enfeebling of the entire school system, leaving school leaders to pillage their budgets still further.

A further investment in people is providing teaching professionals with the greatest of commodities: time. In successful Asian nations, like Japan, South Korea and Singapore (all lauded by Michael Gove), teachers are given substantial time to plan lessons, respond to assessment and to develop their pedagogy. It is that time, and not class size, which is invariably large, which is the most significant shift from our approach. What would be obvious would be to make that time synchronised with the aforementioned programme for RandD: focusing upon teacher quality and great pedagogy. Networks of teaching schools would be synchronised with Universities well versed in research, but with a concerted focus upon practice in the classroom. Also, in Japan, ‘jugyou kenkyuu‘, translated as research lessons, are a crucial part of the developmental learning culture. Every teacher periodically prepares a best possible lesson that demonstrates strategies to achieve a specific goal in collaboration with their fellow colleagues. Rooted in their culture is that highly professional skill of reflection and a research based methodology.

The cooperative model of ‘jugyou kenkyuu‘ brings me back to my central point about a shift in values from our Department FOR Education towards working with the professionals on the front line. Like ‘jugyou kenkyuu’, we learn and improve through dialogue, not by dictat. We need to move towards a cooperative model, where schools and teachers are encouraged to collaborate and school interdependence is engendered, rather than a culture of fearful and corrosive competition. Autonomy can still flourish in a climate of embedded and systematic collaboration: indeed, a remodelled OFSTED could have a core purpose of supporting schools to raise standards of pedagogy, rather than being simple a punitive measure. We need to move towards a revalued model of education that places autonomy and authority back into the hands of teachers, with the highest expectations of research driven pedagogy.

In his ‘Precepts’ Hippocrates (a Greek physician: 460 BC – 377 BC) states: “Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” Let’s collaborate to seize to opportunity to demand better values from our politicians and to demand the best from ourselves as professionals.

The Spark of Reading

“Come on baby light my fire!”

In education today there are few topics that receive the unanimous support of all educators like the value conferred upon literacy and particularly the importance of reading. The evidence regarding how literacy can impact upon life chances is incontrovertible and the ‘riches’ provided by reading are very real: literally, in terms of average wages and career success; as well as emotionally, spiritually and cognitively. The inspirational trigger for my writing this blog post about the power of reading was this article here in the Telegraph about how reading great literature can spark the brain neurologically and have lasting physiological and psychological benefits.

When contemplating the nourishing benefits of reading I am saddened by evidence provided by the excellent National Literacy Trust that indicates that reading for pleasure appears to be in perennial decline. Evidence from the National Literacy Trust states that at the end of 2011 that only three young people in ten now read daily in their own time, down from five out of ten in 2005. Every Parents’ evening, particularly for our younger students, I explain the importance of reading for pleasure – how it has a tremendous impact upon school success, as well as its legion of unmeasurable benefits of course. I think the sourcing of accurate evidence to support this would be impossible to compile, but I am of the firm belief that those students who read for pleasure regularly over the period of their school life almost always excel compared to their non-reading peers. The very act of reading shows a habit of mind that is conducive to the concentration levels required of challenging work. Also, regular reading is often a sound indicator of those many nourishing home-life conditions, established from a young age, that are so crucial for success in later life.

As an English teacher, the potent power of reading great literature is something I have felt in a very real way and it shapes who I am. I can provide a series of accounts of how literature nourished and sustained me and how this same spark has been ignited in others. In my darker days as a truculent teen, I embarked upon a personal reading binge, which unknown to me then was something of a self-help course – my own pseudo-freudian self-analysis! The poetry and novels I read were directly an attempt at understanding myself and the turbulent maelstrom of teenage thoughts and feelings I was subject to at the time. In the characters of Holden Caulfield (‘The Catcher in the Rye’), Paul Morel (‘Sons and Lovers’) and Nick Carraway (‘The Great Gatsby’) I found kindred spirits – friends of a unique sort – that bolstered my confidence and sense of self, as good friends do. I have always been fascinated by that near-ineffable feeling of reaching though the page and through time to warmly greet such characters. The feeling articulated so precisely and plaintively by the teacher, Hector, in Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’:

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”.

This moment described by Hector captures perfectly that potent “lighting up” of the brain, as described by the Scientists undertaking their study into the neurological effects of reading. Of course, this account of reading from Alan Bennett also describes the acute emotional benefits of reading – arguably the greatest gift conferred upon us from this simple act.

When I went to University, I was lucky enough to be tutored by the same Prof Phillip Davis who is the expert in the aforementioned Telegraph article. Seldom in my life have I come across a person so wise and so passionate about his vocation – and it was this very passion, regarding the nourishing power of reading, that gave me the conviction that I should pursue a career that promoted reading over other professional options, such as the sterile vacuum of a Human Resources department in some business or other. As proved by his scientific pursuit of answers, Dr Davis wanted to capture the ineffable power of reading; define why great literature, the type of literature that is challenging on a host of intellectual levels, could provide greater personal ballast than any shelf of trite self-help books ever could. The neurological evidence is that the brain indeed lights up when faced with such literature (challenging and difficult literature in the very best way) – such evidence that would feel like wholly predictable common sense to those, like me, who revel in that uplifting ‘spark’ of reading.

It made me remember two pivotal reading experiences in my life – two that have shaped so much of my intellectual and emotional life. Sparks that lit a flame. I assume there were many vague memories from earliest childhood that were the true foundations for my love of reading, likely involving my mother reading books, or reading newspapers with my father. Yet, these two later reading experiences crystallise for me the transformative power of reading.

My first experience that directly related to the research in the Telegraph article – it was in the seminar room of Dr Davis himself, reading T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. I had always disliked Eliot’s poetry – backed by my favourite poet, Phillip Larkin – and had always thought his poetry elitist and obscure. This experience was guided by Dr Davis, who explained and helped illuminate the liturgical language, as we explored with laser-like precision the complex weaving of the language. It was the crucial ‘fascination of what’s difficult‘, to quote Yeats, that finally struck me quite profoundly. My brain, challenged by the obscurity of the language, was sparking new neural pathways – it illuminated new understanding that I felt in a very palpable way. Without wishing to sound like I had a ‘road to Damascus’ style conversion, of course I had loved challenging literature for some years, but the challenge of reading ‘The Four Quartets’, and the rich rewards I felt vert directly did indeed feel irrevocably different. I felt that I would want to guide others through similar challenges to the attendant rewards. When I now read the following words by Dr Davis from the article I see them as a rallying call for the reading of truly great literature:

“This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.” Professor Phillip Davis

The second experience helped changed my life and helped me find my vocation. It was one of those moments, too easily derided as corny and trite, when knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was leaving university and I had travailed the usual path of work experience in a Primary school and a Secondary school. I then had the opportunity to spend a fascinating week in a Special school in Liverpool. On the first day I had helped the shearing of sheep (I have not done that since!) – a real education indeed! On the second day a young boy was having an initial three day taster of the school. He had a significant series of special needs. His reading level was that of a an infant boy, far below his chronological age. We tackled one of those generic, basic reading books – about a boy leaving home to begin his life as an adult. The young lad really struggled to comprehend the reasoning for leaving home, nor could he fully grasp all the vocabulary, but, with lots of step by step scaffolding he got to the end of the book in little over half an hour. He was in raptures because he had finished the book and I was moved in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

The next day the young boy’s mother explained how delighted she was, after the first day, and how much her young boy had loved the reading time. I could hardly express how inwardly delighted I was. When I reflect now that process described in the Telegraph article as the “lighting up” of the brain was the same difficult reading experience the young boy and myself both experienced in our fashion – at very different times in our lives, with very different, but with equally challenging literature.

Triggered by these memories, I quickly activate my own “reappraisal mechanism”, as explained in the article, and remember that my job as a teacher is not just to tick a box labelled Literacy for OFSTED or just help students jump through ill-fitting examination hoops, but to help kindle a spark for reading. The rest will take care of itself. The next time I find a student questioning why we read Shakespeare I may well pull out a sparkler!

In the aforementioned ‘History Boys’, Hector implores the boys to “pass it on”. What is being passed on is a passion for knowledge and primarily a love of great literature. I hope that I may also have the continued gift of passing on that mighty spark for reading great literature.


Top Ten Group Work Strategies


If I am continually vexed by any one question in education it is ‘how can we enhance student motivation?‘ Of course, I do not have the answer, and if there is one it is multi-faceted, complex and, frankly, not going to be solved in this blog post! From my position as a classroom teacher, I am always on the look out for those strategies that create a state when students are motivated and in their element, where they work furiously without even realising they are doing so, without realising the clock is ticking down to the end of the lesson. There is no better compliment than when students question how long there is left and express genuine surprise at how fast time has passed, and that they have actually enjoyed that lesson!

My, admittedly non-scientific, observations are that many of the times students are in ‘flow‘, or their element, in my lessons is when they are collaborating in group work. Why is this then? I believe that we are obviously social beings and we naturally learn in such groups (not always effectively it must be said), but that, more importantly, when working in a group we are able to correct, support, encourage, question and develop ideas much more effectively. The power of the group, guided by the expertise of the teacher, accelerates learning, makes it richer and demands a learning consensus that can push people beyond their habitual assumptions.

Don’t get me wrong, there are pitfalls and obstacles to group work. This constructivist approach should build upon expert teacher led pedagogy – ensuring that students have a good grounding in the relevant knowledge before undertaking in-depth group work. Group work can also be beset by issues in many nuanced forms: whether it is subtle intellectual bullying, where the student who shouts loudest prevails; or the encouragement of mediocrity and laziness, as students let others do all the work; or simply by poor, distracting behaviour. Another issue is ‘group think’ miscomprehension – indeed, how does prejudice flourish if not in social groups? Yet, this failure is often great for learning as long as the teacher can illuminate the error of their ways. Of course, no teaching strategy is foolproof and plain good teaching should remedy many of the potential ills of group work, just as good teaching can make more traditional teacher-led ‘direct instruction’ wholly engaging and effective.

I am intrigued by the idea of ‘social scaffolding‘ (Vygotsky) – the concept that most of our learning is undertaken in group situations, where we learn through dialogue and debate with others, not simply by listening to that voice in our head! That being said, I am not talking teachers out of a classroom here. The role of the teacher in devising and planning a successful group task takes skill, rigour and utter clarity and precision. Students need to be clear about a whole host of things: from their role, to the purpose of the task and the parameters of expected outcomes to name but a few. Teachers need to keep groups on track, intervene appropriately to improve learning and regularly regain student focus. Teachers have a pivotal role in guiding the group work at every stage. Group work certainly isn’t the lazy option: it takes skill in the planning and the execution, and sometimes, despite our best laid plans, it still fails. That shouldn’t put us off – aren’t all teaching and learning strategies subject to such risks?

If I was to define a simple and straight-forward basis for the rules for group work it would be:

– Have clearly defined tasks, with sharp timings and with the appropriate tools organised
– Have clearly defined group roles
– Have clear ground rules for talk, listening and fair allocation of workload etc.
– Target your support and interventions throughout the task, but make them interdependent of one another, not dependent upon you
– Always be prepared to curtail group work if students don’t follow your high expectations.

So here it is, my entirely subjective top ten strategies for group work that I believe to be effective (ideas for which I must thank a multitude of sources):

1. ‘Think-pair-share’ and ‘Think-pair-square’.

Well, no-one said this top ten had to be original! This strategy is one of those techniques that we employ so readily that we can almost forget about it, it is simply so automatic for most teachers; yet, because of that we can easily forget it in our planning. We need to use it regularly because it is the very best of scaffolded learning; it almost always facilitates better quality feedback by allowing proper thinking time and for students to sound out their ideas and receive instantaneous feedback from peers. ‘Think-pair-square’ adds a touch of added flavour, involving linking two pairs together (to form the ‘square’ to share their ideas before whole class feedback). Once more, it is about adding depth to ideas, stimulating debate and collaborative thinking. I defer to this blog post by @headguruteacher for the skinny on ‘Think-pair-share’ here.

2. Snowballing or the Jigsaw method

Similar to the ‘square’ approach mentioned in ‘Think-Pair-Square’, the ‘snowballing’ activity is another simple but very effective way of building upon ideas by starting with small groups and expanding the groups in a structured way. As the metaphor of the snowball suggests, you can begin with an individual response to a question; followed by then pairing up students up; then creating a four and so on. It does allow for quick, flexible group work that doesn’t necessarily require much planning, but does keep shaping viewpoints and challenging ‘answers’ is a constructive fashion.

The ‘jigsaw method’ is slightly more intricate. David Didau describes here how it is the “ultimate teaching method”, but that it benefits greatly from careful planning. Put simply, when researching a topic, like the causes of the Second World War, each member of a group is allocated an area for which they need to become the ‘expert‘, such as ‘the impact of the Treaty of Versailles’, or ‘issues with the dissolution of Austria-Hungary’ for example. With five or six ‘Home‘ groups identified, the ‘experts‘ then leave that group to come together to pool their expertise on the one topic; they question one another and combine research, ideas and their knowledge. Then each ‘expert‘ returns to their ‘home‘ group to share their findings. It is a skilful way of varying group dynamics as well as scaffolding learning.

3. Debating (using clear rules)

As you probably know, our own inspiring leader, Michael Gove, was the President of the Oxford Union. Clearly, these ancient skills of rhetoric and debate have seen him rise to dizzying heights. Perhaps we need to teach debating with great skill if we are to produce citizens who can debate with the best of them…and with Michael Gove! The premise of a debate, and its value in enriching the learning of logic, developing understanding and the simultaneous sharpening and opening our minds, is quite obvious so I will not elaborate. If you are ever stuck for a debate topic then this website will be of great use: The Oxford rules model is an essential model for the classroom in my view. It provides a clear structure and even a level of formality which is important, provide coherence and greater clarity to the debate. The rules, familiar steps though they are for many, are as follows:

Four speakers in each team (for and against the motion)
First speaker introduces all the ideas that team has generated
Second speaker outlines two or three more ideas in some depth
Third speaker outlines two or three ideas in some depth
Fourth speaker criticises the points made by the other team
Each individual speaker has two minutes to speak (or more of course), with protected time of thirty seconds at the beginning or the end
The rest of the team is the ‘Floor‘ and can interject at any time by calling out ‘Point of Information‘ and standing. The speaker can accept or reject an interjection.

You may wish to have the other groups work as feedback observers on the debate being undertaking (a little like Socratic circles – number 8). This has the benefit of keeping the whole class engaged and actively listening to the debate.

4. Project Based Learning/Problem Based Learning

I have to admit I have only ever undertaken project style work on a small scale, but in the last year I have been startled by the quality of work I have observed in project based learning across the world. The principals of Project Based Learning are key: such as identifying real audiences and purposes for student work (a key factor in enhancing motivation); promoting interdependent student work, often subtly guided by the teacher at most stages; letting students undertake roles and manage the attendant challenges that arise; learning is most often integrated and spans subject areas; and students constructing their own questions and knowledge. Truly the best guide is to survey these great examples: The curriculum here is founded upon the PBL model. A brilliant PE based PBL. A great Art centred project.

The Innovation Unit has also produced this brilliant must-read guide to PBL in great depth here.

‘Problem based learning’ is clearly related to the project model, but it explicitly starts with a problem to be solved. It is based primarily upon the model from medicine – think Dr House (although he is hardly a team player!). David Didau sagely recommends that the teacher, or students in collaboration, find a specifically local problem – this raises the stakes of the task. Clearly, in Mathematics, real problem based learning can be a central way to approach mathematical challenges in a collaborative way; in Science or Philosophy, the options to tackle ethical and scientific problems are endless. There is criticism of this approach – that students struggle with the ‘cognitive load’ without more of a working memory. Ideally, this learning approach follows some high quality direct instruction, and teacher led worked examples, to ensure that students have effective models to work from and some of the aforementioned working memory.

5. Group Presentations

I would ideally label this strategy: ‘questions, questions, questions‘ as it is all about creating, and modelling, a culture of enquiry by asking students questions about a given topic, rather than didactically telling them the answer – then helping shape their research. The teacher leads with a ‘big question‘; then it is taken on by groups who (given materials, such as books, magazines, essays, iPads, laptops, or access to the library or an ICT suite etc.) have to interrogate the question, forming their own sub-set of questions about the question/ topic. They then source and research the key information, before finally agreeing to the answers to the questions they had themselves formed. The crucial aspect about presentations is giving students enough time to make the presentation worthwhile, as well as allocating clear roles. High quality presentations take time to plan, research and execute. Personally, I find the timekeeper role a waste of time (I can do that for free!), but other roles, such as leader, designer and scribe etc. have value. Also, the teaching needs to be carefully planned so the entire presentation is not reliant solely upon any one person or piece of technology. Developing a shared understanding of the outcome and the different parameters of the presentation is key: including features like banning text on PowerPoints; or making it an expectation that there is some element of audience participation; to agreeing what subject specific language should be included. The devil is in the detail!

6. ‘Devise the Display’

I have a troubled relationship with displays! I very rarely devise my own display as I think displays become wallpaper far too soon considering the effort taken to provide them – like newspapers, they become unused within days. I much prefer a ‘working wall‘, that can be constantly changed or updated (or a ‘learning continuum’ for an entire topic when can be periodically added to each lesson). That being said, I do think there is real high quality learning potential in the process of students devising and creating wall displays. It is great formative feedback to devise a wall display once you are well under way a topic. It makes the students identify and prioritise the key elements of their knowledge and the skills they are honing.

I find the most valuable learning is actually during the design ideas stage.You can ‘snowball’ design ideas with the students; beginning individually, before getting groups to decide collaboratively on their design; then having a whole class vote. I do include stipulations for what they must include, such as always including worked examples. Then, the sometimes chaotic, but enjoyable activity it to create the display. I always aim for the ‘60 Minute Makeover‘ approach – quick and less painful (it also makes you less precious about the finer details)! I think they also learn a whole host of valuable skills involving team work, empathy and not to annoy me by breaking our wall staplers! I think it is then important to not let any display fester and waste, but to pull it down and start afresh with a new topic. I know this strategy does put some people off, because it can be like organised chaos, but if everyone has a clear role and responsibility the results can be amazing. [Warning – some designs can look like they have been produced by Keith Richards on a spectacular acid trip!]

7. Gallery Critique

This stems from the outstanding work of on Berger. Both a teacher and a craftsman himself, Berger explains the value of critique as rich feedback in his brilliant book ‘The Ethic of Excellence‘. It can be used during the draft/main process or as a summative task. This strategy does have some specific protocols students should follow. The work of the whole group should be displayed in a gallery style for a short time. Students are expected to first undertake a short silent viewing (making notes to reflect is also useful here). The students make comments on the work – post it notes being ideal for this stage. Then the next step is a group discussion of ‘what they noticed‘ in particular, with debate and discussion encouraged – of course, the feedback should be both kind and constructive. The next step for discussion is talking about ‘what they liked‘, evaluating the work. The final stage has the teacher synthesise viewpoints and express their own; before ensuring students make notes and reflect upon useful observations for making improvements.

8. Socratic Talk

I have spoken about this strategy before here. What is key is that like the debating rules above, a clear and defined structure is in place, particularly with ‘Socratic circles‘ which embeds feedback and debate in a seamless way. It takes some skill in teaching students how to talk in this fashion, but once taught, it can become a crucial tool in the repertoire. In my experience, some of the most sensitive insights have emerged from this strategy and the listening skills encouraged are paramount and have an ongoing positive impact. It also allows for every student to have a role and quality feedback becomes an expectation.

9. Talking Triads

Another simple, but highly effective strategy. It is a strategy that gets people to explore a chosen topic, but with a really rigorous analysis of ideas and views. The triad comprises of a speaker, a questioner and a recorder/analyst. You can prepare questions, or you can get the questioner and the analyst to prepare questions whilst the speaker prepares or reflects upon potential answers. This can be done in front of the class as a gallery of sorts, or you can have all triads working simultaneously. If they do work simultaneously, then a nice addition is to raise your hand next to a particular triad, which signals for other groups to stop and listen whilst that specific triad continues, allowing for some quality listening opportunities.

10. Mastery Modelling

This involves a form of formative assessment from students, whereat the teacher gives a group a series of models, both exemplar models and lesser models, including some with common errors that students would likely identify. The students need to do a critical appraisal of the these models as a group and identify their summary assessment of the models first, before then devising and presenting a ‘mastery model’ that is a composite exemplar model of work. This strategy works in pretty much every subject, with the subject being either an essay, a piece of art, or a mathematical problem. This presentation should include an explicit focus upon the steps taken leading to create the ‘mastery model‘ during the feedback – this unveils the process required for mastery for the whole class.

Useful links:

A great research paper that analyses group work and its importance:
‘Toward a social pedagogy of classroom group work’
By Peter Blatchford, Peter Kutnick, Ed Baines, and Maurice Galton

An excellent National Strategies booklet from back in the day when the DfE was interested in pedagogy. I particularly like the ‘different grouping criteria’/’size of grouping’ tables:
Pedagogy and Practice: Teaching and Learning in Secondary Schools Unit 10: Group work

Nice step by step guide to the implementation and the delivery of group work
Implementing Group Work in the Classroom


Evidence Driven Education


I started the school year talking with my faculty about our success in the summer and throughout the previous year and of course the areas we needed to improve. Upon reflection we could identify some clear reasoning why the successes occurred, hard earned as they were. The reasons primarily centred on having a team of very good teachers who taught very good lessons consistently (to bastardise a Bill Clinton phrase: “It is the teaching stupid!“) – which is backed up by hard-nosed lesson judgements. This was bolstered by our effective managing of data and our concentration upon the things that mattered that we could control, like controlled assessments (I think we are all agreed that is a dirty word that we will be happy to be rid of soon enough). What struck me, particularly having read John Hattie’s ‘Visible Learning for Teachers‘, was that we had some experienced ‘intuitions‘ about why we did well, some hard data and some soft data, all leading to the same conclusions, but that to continue to replicate that success we needed to be much more systematic with our evaluations and our evidence.

I wanted us to focus even more closely on what happened in the good lessons that made them consistently good – after all, that is point of what we are trying to do isn’t it – get better at teaching. I wanted to explicitly know this so that regardless of what assessment models or curricular systems are imposed upon us in the coming year, or even future years, we could still teach great lessons consistently: essentially “keeping he main thing the main thing”. We also reflected upon the truth that there is no ‘one size fits all formula’ for good teaching, but that did not stop us analysing the evidence of high impact strategies. Knowing that, and what interventions worked best, would be a crystallisation of all the answers we need. It takes effort, but done properly the rewards are huge (I don’t underestimate such effort when we are all pushed to the limits to do the job well – perhaps schools should have their own ‘Delivery Units‘ to to do the job across the school?)

I therefore wanted to make a concerted attempt to think with both the heart and the head (or the ‘Elephant’ and the ‘Rider’ to unite my previous post) and to source the best evidence possible for great teaching. That included the epic meta-analyses of John Hattie and his team. I am in no doubt of the efficacy of this type of research; it is essential for medical research and it does add value to educational debate. I was, and am, however circumspect at the same time. Instinctively I asked how could individual teaching strategies be fairly judged within school contexts when there are a whole host of other factors at work simultaneously – a complex web even the sharpest of minds would struggle to delineate. For example, how could the success of ‘questioning‘ be fairly judged when at the same time ‘teacher subject knowledge‘, ‘class size‘ and a whole host of other effect sizes are at work? Therefore, I surmised that such data is imperfect. Yet, the more I read, the more I couldn’t avert myself from the fact that this was still the best way to source the answers about what made good teaching and good interventions effective. What is key is that the sheer scale and selectivity of the trials improved the quality and accuracy of the data, and continues to do so.

The ethical basis of ‘testing’ on children is a valid objection to such an evidence based approach. The idea of a ‘control group‘ not having an intervention instinctively sits uneasily with me. In practice, with a technology trial for example, it is hard to deny a class the right to use technology which may be most appropriate with a task. However, when I thought about it, I considered that many interventions can actually have a negative effect, or be a distraction, so it was a case, once more of thinking differently, thinking more scientifically and less emotionally. I am simply not in my job to be unethical, quite the reverse. What would be unethical would be to not undertake RCTs (randomly controlled trials) and to instead base our teaching, our interventions, indeed our entire system upon a hunch, or on a personal basis, solely based on ideology. When we move educational policy at break-neck speed, we are likely to take in unnecessary risks, which I deem wholly unethical. This is my primary objection to Gove’s Ebacc proposals. There is no evidence, no research and no trials to support his radical change. I find his approach arrogant and potentially dangerous. He is so caught up in the political expediency of a ‘shock doctrine‘ style swift change that he ignores the experts and the evidence. the obvious question is why then should educational policy not be driven by such an evidence base?

What we cannot do is simply rely upon the ‘noble myth‘ (described by Plato as well meaning, but flawed reasoning to perpetuate comfort for the greater good) of our intuitions alone, however experienced we are. Our well meaning, but flawed emotional response to ‘what has always worked‘ for us is always going to be too narrow in scope, too bound with our own emotional bias to be sufficient. We need to focus in on the practice and the pedagogy, which often means stepping back from the personal. Yes, we are all emotional beings (thankfully so – the best of us often being those most in touch with their emotional intuition), who teach with our head and heart, but we must reflect and make adjustments and plan improvements with as scientific an approach as possible if we are to properly define what is good teaching. As an English teacher, this strikes against some of my natural instincts, stemming from the Romantic ideal of individual genius and the power of emotional intuition to find ‘the answer‘.

Of course, any one source of evidence is too narrow if we have the opportunity to source more evidence from a variety of methods. The best answers, as I have stated, are to be found when we have the greatest breadth of the evidence: including hard data (ideally through rigorous control based trials), but also including soft data – like student voice and teacher feedback – and our personal and professional intuition as experienced experts – those aforementioned ‘noble myths‘. What is crucial is that we have policy makers, school leaders, subject leaders or teachers who do not unthinkingly implement changes based upon statistical evidence, provided by the likes of Hattie, without taking a full account of the unique context of their country, their school and their students. This would be foolhardy and it is a valid concern levelled at evidence led policy that we must address. School leaders, for example, will be sold snake-oil by gurus looking to sell their foolproof educational wares based on what they present as the most rigorous of evidence (of course that data will be flawed and manipulated, as such data can be). Some leaders are simply looking for a quick fix to their problems, when quick fixes don’t exist in schools! Therefore we must question the methodology behind the evidence and weigh up the factors impacting upon the evidence – again, taking a more scientific approach.

So what is to be done? In our faculty it is about trialling strategies and becoming more systematic about that trialling. It is about sharing our good practice and our good pedagogy, but crucially then evaluating its impact in a more rigorous fashion. In all honesty, our current evidence does not stand up to the scrutiny I outline above. Therefore it is important that we so the hard work to make this so. Focusing with utter consistency upon the pedagogy and the practice…and the evidence of impact.

This model of sourcing better evidence to justify change needs to replicated at school level and even on a national level. This is happening, but typically away from view. The Education Endowment Fund is currently running trials across a thousand schools in Britain to source evidence to direct policy – read this fascinating research on school interventions for instance: Teaching and Learning Toolkit. The debate is happening and policy people in Whitehall are listening: listen to Ben Goldacre’s brilliant analysis here on how evidence led policy is being undertaken in Whitehall (the education focused section begins around the twenty seven minute mark – including debate about phonics teaching). We must challenge the many ‘noble myths‘ that attend our educational discourse and source as must high quality evidence of impact as we can.